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Evanston Township High School students who were reading below grade level last year showed mixed results on their progress after receiving support classes designed to help them “catch up” with their peers, District 202 administrators told the School Board on Oct. 26. 

The report, presented by Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and Regina Armour, literacy coordinator, emphasized, “We are all trying to figure out one of the big questions in American education today – how to teach struggling adolescent readers.  We are not satisfied with our small gains, but incremental progress that consistently moves upward constitutes some success.”

In 2008-09 there were a total of 186 students enrolled in remedial reading programs:

     Read 180    65

     Special Ed 180     29

     Bilingual 180        10

     Freshman Reading  55

     2 Humanities Enriched     27

“We can give so many advantages and gifts to students in this school,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon.  “But I can say for these 186 students, the greatest gift we can give them in this high school is to become able readers.”

The majority of students in these programs were black or Hispanic (87%) and from low-income households (73%).  Approximately 32% had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 5% were bilingual students.

Students in Read 180, a two-period class, are freshmen whose scores on the EXPLORE and MAP tests place them between the first and 29th percentiles. Students in Freshman Reading, a one-period class, have scored between the 30th and 49th percentiles. Students take these courses in addition to their two-period Freshman Humanities course. Sophomores are placed in 2 Humanities Enriched based on their performance in Freshman Humanities the previous year.

Teachers working with students in the Read 180 program employ an intensive reading intervention program using technology and print, as well as professional development. According to the program website, Read 180 “addresses individual needs through differentiated instruction, adaptive and instructional software, high-interest literature, and direct instruction in reading, writing, and vocabulary skills.”

Some Students Progress, Others Fall Behind Even More

Last year the administration conducted an evaluation of student progress.  In the fall of 2008, teachers set a target that students show more than a year’s growth in terms of grade equivalent both in vocabulary and comprehension. 

Students were tested in October 2008 and again in May 2009 with an evaluation test called Gates-McGinitie.

Some students (10 – 52%, depending on the program assignment) showed improvement of a year or more growth, others gained somewhat less than a year (18 – 50%) and still others did not gain at all, or actually lost ground (15 -70%).

“I remember when we first introduced Read 180 to the District,” said Board president Rachel Hayman.  “It seemed to me that the promised results were that the kids could grow more than just a year.”

“Read 180 is one of the few organized interventions for adolescent struggling readers,” responded Dr. Cooper.  “It can have some strong results for some kids. It is just a program. We have to determine who it is working for and who it is not.”

Dr. Cooper added that the kind of literacy diagnostic assessments available to primary school teachers are not available at the high school level. “We can’t buy off the shelf the kind of assessments tools we need,” she said.  “The most important thing we need to do is to understand what’s going on with these kids and making sure we’re matching kid to intervention.”

Low grades for many

Many students in the reading programs received poor grades in the English part of their Humanities classes: anywhere from 37% to 85% of students got a grade of D/F/NC at either the first or second semester, with students in 2 Humanities faring the worst. Students did somewhat better in history: D/F/NC grades were received by 15 – 36% of most students.  However, 67% of 2 Humanities students got a D/F/NC at the second semester.  In many cases, although not all, there were more of the poor grades in 2008/09 than there had been in previous years.

Board member Deborah Graham asked what might explain the increase in the number of D/F/NC’s, especially in 2 Humanities.

“When you increase rigor in your class or you implement new strategies or hold kids accountable in different ways,” said Ms. Armour, “sometimes that creates a disequilibrium in the class. We’re trying to tease out [the variables] to find out exactly where kids seem to be strong and where … they have the challenges.”

Student Survey Reveals Strengths and Weaknesses

Students were surveyed about their interest in and comfort with reading, as well as their feelings about teacher encouragement and other miscellaneous issues.

The survey found that special education students were less positive about their experiences than other students in the literacy program.  Students in general also reported that they have a lot of reading materials at home, but only about half responded that they like to read when they have free time. Difficulty of the books is not a deterrent for most students, they said.

Students also reported that they feel that their reading teacher knows what they are capable of doing academically, and that they have more trouble reading material for science than they do for English, history or math.

Program Changes Planned and Implemented

Administrators have already implemented several changes to the literacy program for this school year based on student data collected.

Some of these changes include the introduction of a new program from Scholastic called System 44 that addresses the small percentage of students who need explicit instruction in phonics and basic word identification, as well as more intensive coaching support to reading program teachers on strategies and methods for one-on-one student interventions.

In addition, a newly revised Freshman Reading curriculum to more closely support students to be successful in 1 Humanities is being implemented, as is a continued focus on literacy efforts in the science department. Finally, administrators report that “we need to continue to find opportunities for students to read in school and to encourage reading outside of school.  Students indicate that they like to read and have reading materials at home.  It may be that students do not put aside time to read.”